There are three different pro-Trump spins one might have on the Ukraine business. One, the Trump “total innocence” spin: No quid pro quo! Perfect phone call! Witch hunt! The problem with that is that at least three witnesses (Morrison, Taylor, Vindman) have testified already that it sure looked to them like a quid pro quo was in the works. If Republicans insist on going out on the limb of “total innocence,” they’re apt to have it sawed off from under them during testimony at trial.
Two, the Tucker Carlson/Rob Portman “bad but not impeachable” spin: Yeah, it was inappropriate, but this just isn’t a high crime or misdemeanor. Case dismissed.
Three, the spin some Senate Republicans are reportedly warming to, according to WaPo: Not impeachable and also perfectly appropriate. This argument has advantages over the Carlson/Portman spin. For one thing, it’ll make Trump happier. He’ll resent Republicans who criticize him on the propriety of his interactions with Ukraine; if they’re going to contradict him by claiming there was a quid pro quo, the least they can do to salve the wound is to stress that he did nothing wrong. Also, the “bad but not impeachable” argument doesn’t really add up. The “bad” thing Trump is accused of in this case is using his official power to pressure another country into cooking up trouble for an electoral rival. If you think he’s guilty of that, how do you justify not impeaching him? Inviting foreign interference into the presidential election is serious business, especially if he’s pulling levers of official power to make it happen.
Just listen to Trump’s friend, Newsmax chief Chris Ruddy, try to get out of the box he’s placed himself in by embracing “bad but not impeachable” as his defense:
On @AJUpFront, Trump's close friend, the conservative journalist Chris Ruddy, who speaks with him regularly, tells me "Biden's name should have never been raised in the call" & it's "absolutely" inappropriate for Trump to involve Ukraine in a US election:pic.twitter.com/oU6KG6Kg2i
— Mehdi Hasan (@mehdirhasan) November 1, 2019
The president can make “inappropriate” requests about political rivals because he’s the chief law enforcement officer? What? This is transparently just Ruddy trying to split the difference on the Ukraine business — okay, it’s bad, but let’s move on — at the expense of logical consistency.
The only coherent option the third one, accepting Trump’s unconvincing assurances that he was after the Bidens because he cares about exposing corruption in the U.S. government, not because he was trying to take out the Democratic frontrunner. That lets you admit the quid pro quo, neutralizing the testimony from Morrison et al, while also insisting that Trump didn’t actually do anything bad. And so here we are:
The pivot was the main topic during a private Senate GOP lunch on Wednesday, according to multiple people familiar with the session who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the meeting. Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) argued that there may have been a quid pro quo but said that the U.S. government often attaches conditions to foreign aid and that nothing was amiss in Trump’s doing so in the case of aid to Ukraine, these individuals said.
Inside the lunch, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who ran against Trump in 2016, said a quid pro quo is not illegal unless there is “corrupt intent” and echoed Kennedy’s argument that such conditions are a tool of foreign policy.
“To me, this entire issue is gonna come down to, why did the president ask for an investigation,” Kennedy, who worked as a lawyer, said in an interview. “To me, it all turns on intent, motive. … Did the president have a culpable state of mind? … Based on the evidence that I see, that I’ve been allowed to see, the president does not have a culpable state of mind.”…
“He honestly believes that there may have been corruption in Ukraine, and before he turns over $400 million of American taxpayer money, he’s entitled to ask,” Kennedy said, later adding, “The issue to be litigated … is going to be: Did the president have a good-faith reason to believe that Hunter Biden may have been involved in corruption? And if I’m correct in my analysis, then there will be a lot of time spent on what Mr. Biden did for the money.”
Uh, that is not correct. The issue to be litigated is not whether Trump had a good-faith believe that Hunter Biden was involved in corruption. The issue is whether he had a good-faith belief that Joe Biden abused his power as vice president in the Obama administration by withholding U.S. aid to Ukraine in order to get the Ukrainian government to back off on investigating Hunter Biden’s company. Exposing corruption by a high-ranking former government official is the alleged legitimate public interest here, not what Biden’s sleazy kid was up to. If Trump had reason to believe that Hunter was corrupt but that Joe was not, the question will inevitably be asked why the president of the United States thought having Hunter investigated was such an urgent foreign policy priority that he needed to speak personally to the president of Ukraine about it. Does he normally dial around trying to find out from people whether politicians’ spawn are cashing in on their parent’s name?
But Kennedy’s right that refocusing the inquiry on Trump’s intent is a smart way to get Trump off the hook. The more the GOP can make impeachment turn on questions that are ultimately unknowable, the easier it’ll be for them to justify acquitting Trump. We can’t know whether the Framers would have regarded this matter as a “high crime or misdemeanor,” right? We can’t know for sure whether Trump had a legitimate public purpose (exposing government corruption by Joe Biden) in pushing Zelensky on Burisma or whether he had an illegitimate personal motive in trying to damage a candidate whom he expected to face next fall in the election. Raise doubts about matters where doubt can’t be completely eliminated and then give Trump the benefit of that doubt by voting not guilty. That’s what’s going to happen.
If this does end up as an argument over Trump’s motive, though, there are obvious questions Democrats will ask to try to infer how serious Trump’s interest in “fighting corruption” was relative to his interest in damaging Joe Biden’s presidential candidacy:
— When did he first take an interest in the Burisma matter? Did it happen to coincide with Biden announcing he was running for president? If he’s been concerned about it for years, why didn’t he or the Republican Congress do anything about it when they had total control of government?
— Has Trump sought to investigate corruption by any U.S. official that’s not directly tied to an election that Trump was involved in, whether 2016 or 2020?
— Has Trump sought to investigate corruption by any Republican officials? A Trump-friendly author wrote a book recently raising questions about Mitch McConnell’s and Elaine Chao’s business with China. One is the Senate majority leader, the other is Trump’s own transportation secretary. Why was investigating alleged corruption by a former VP who’s now out of office a higher priority for Trump than investigating alleged corruption by two officials with heavy influence over Trump’s own government?
— Why was Trump so interested in getting Ukraine to *announce* that they would reopen the Burisma probe when he must have realized that doing so would tip off the Bidens and give them a chance to cover their tracks?
I hope for Kennedy’s sake that Trump is cool with the new spin that there was in fact a quid pro quo, even if there was no problem with it. As I say, it’s a smart defense argument, but you-know-who won’t like being told that he just spent six weeks adamantly denying something that his own party now admits is true, albeit no big deal.